Shovel Knight teaches us one important lesson, greed is good, and it hasn’t felt this good since Wario Land first arrived in 1993.
Ordinarily, I tend to avoid indie games, as I’ve had a fair amount of bad experiences with them in the past. VVVVVV was a notable exception, and even then I didn’t feel completely satisfied with it. Shovel Knight is an anathema for me, it manages to not only be an enjoyable experience, but surpasses a great deal of software with larger budgets. This game captures the essence of NES games like no other, without harboring flaws that titles of old possessed. The difficulty curve was just right, managing to be both challenging and incredibly fun to play through. You rarely felt like it was a chore to traverse the stages in this game; there were many instances in which you felt a sense of dread, having to play through some levels in older games.
The story of Shovel Knight is simple, it doesn’t get in the way of your adventure, and engrosses you in it at the same time. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight travel to the tower of fate in search of treasure, but they find an amulet that wrought a terrible curse; after the terrible incident, he discovers that Shield Knight is gone and The Tower of Fate is sealed. He sinks into a deep depression, living a life of solitude, but eventually comes back to his senses when he discovers an unruly group known as “The Order of No Quarter” wreaking havoc. He then sets out to the Tower of Fate, fighting The Order of No Quarter as he searches for Shield Knight. The characters in this game are incredibly charming, the bosses are arguably the greatest characters next to Black Knight, Shield Knight and Shovel Knight. The humor is, the banter is entertaining, it all fits perfectly well into a game like Shovel Knight.
Your seemingly endless struggle to find Shield Knight gives you a sense of urgency, that you really want to rescue her. Every night after an intense boss battle, Shovel Knight has dreams of Shield Knight; a mini game commences and you’re tasked with catching Shield Knight as she falls. In a sense it’s similar to Super Mario Bros, where you’re constantly told that your princess is in another castle. It serves as a reminder that you’re not just out to find lots of swag, and motivates you to continue on your quest. As most have been saying, this game a nod to titles like Duck Tales, Megaman, Castlevania, The Legend of II Zelda: The Adventure of Link, etc. They would certainly be right, with the ability to use your shovel as a pogo stick ala Scrooge McDuck, employ various abilities like Megaman does, talking to townsfolk like you would in The Adventure of Link, and some stage atmosphere evoking a Castlevania feel.
However, I felt that the game also evoked a Wario Land feel as well. Every time you found a large gem in a treasure chest, Shovel Knight held it aloft in celebration, just like Wario did, there was an overworld map like in Wario Land; even the enemies themselves had treasure you could collect. Perhaps I’m alone in this, and it may be a stretch to even make the comparisons out of these instances, but I definitely got a Wario vibe from the game. The physics in this game are very satisfying, almost as much as Super Mario Brothers. You don’t feel like you weigh a ton like in most platformers of old. Combat is intuitive and fun; swinging your shovel at an enemy after you’ve bounced on his head is a great feeling. The sub weapons you use (known as relics) are also quite nifty, getting you out of tight spots and making it easier to reach treasure. You have to buy them from various merchants you come across, either in levels or the town you visit in the over world map.
My personal favorite was the phase locket, which turned you invincible for a short amount of time; it especially came in handy when I traversed areas chock-full of spikes. Just like in Megaman, spikes kill you in one hit, so make a note to avoid them at all costs. Boss fights are intense and well designed, you’re encouraged to pay close attention to their patterns, but you aren’t forced to memorize literally every single aspect of their nature. You’re given a lot of leeway, with an abundance of health, subweapons, and special chalices that can heal you up or turn you invincible.
Speaking of leeway, the game incredibly forgiving, with checkpoints sprawled throughout several sections of levels. You’re given the option to destroy them though, as there’s treasure inside each. It makes for a nice risk and reward system. Exploration and discovery is a big factor in Shovel Knight, there are rooms that you can find with treasure and merchants hidden in them, cool attacks you can pull off, and more. It’s a game that makes discovery intuitive, giving the player a chance to play around with it as opposed to laying all cards on the table.Graphically it’s quite an impressive title, the pixel art is beautiful. Specter Knight serves as a great example of this, with the way the developers animated his movements as he wields his scythe, you can really tell how hard they worked to make the game look beautiful. Oh, and the Tower of Fate looks stunning; the rain, the clouds, everything looks great.
Needless to say the music is a treat for the ears, in case some of you didn’t know the composer for Megaman made the tracks for this title. Manami Matsumae did a wonderful job, and she deserves praise for the brilliantly composed music in Shovel Knight. There is one complaint I have for Shovel Knight though, and it’s the difficulty being too dependent on whether the player gets knocked into a pit or not. Much of the time I died due to falling into a pit, rather than losing all of my health; the knock-back physics are similar to that of older games, so much of the time getting hit by an enemy over a pit means certain death.
Granted, there is an armor upgrade you can use to prevent this, but it increases momentum, making sure there’s a drawback for using it. If the developers were to make another Shovel Knight, I would definitely urge them to change the formula up somewhat, and not make death overly reliant on whether the player falls off an obstacle. Some more loses due to reduction of health would have been nice. That said, it’s a very minor complaint of mine, because again, checkpoints are very forgiving and it does add to the challenge, even if the game could use more variety in how it chooses to test your skill.
This game is a refreshing throwback to all the greats of the NES days, everything that made these games good is neatly combined into a single package known as Shovel Knight. Exploration and discovery are encouraged, the difficulty for the most part is rather fair, and the story is non intrusive and engrossing. The soundtrack is catchy, and really evokes a nostalgic feeling. If there’s one game that can serve as a great example for all indie devs to follow, it’s definitely this one.